New Orleans 2006
It's shocking to me, that more than 15 months after Katrina came through, whole streets are still deserted, and the ones that aren't are populated by FEMA trailers parked in front of the empty homes . There's money around- someone who was renting prior to Katrina can get a FEMA voucher for up to $900 per month. The only snag is, the rental property has to be approved by a FEMA inspector, and most places don't qualify. So the owner of the unapproved property can rent, but not to someone on assistance. People who owned homes are somewhat better off- they can get trailers and camp in front of their houses, but they are still involved in negotiations with their insurance companies and most have not been able to begin repairs that would allow them to move back in.
Middle class people with families who evacuated are unwilling to return- they've settled their kids in schools, got new jobs, and only come back to New Orleans to visit relatives.
For many of those evacuated, their helicopter ride from the Superdome was their first time in the air. "Just how God must see it." said one woman who sat for me.
At the patio on the third floor of the library, a Vietnamese man sits all day, day after day, he has no record of where he was living at the time of the hurricane and can't qualify for aid. They're trying to find someone who can translate for him.
The cold weather is especially hard on the homeless, of whom there are a surprising number, many of them employed and including significant numbers of women. There is work for anyone who wants it, housing is another matter entirely. A white woman construction worker comes into the Welcome Home office trying to find a shelter that takes women. The office has closed by the time she arrives, she leaves in tears saying that she is staying with an abusive husband in a place where she has to kill rats. I don't find out until I ask the next day that there *is* a shelter that takes women, but it's not listed anywhere that she could find it outside of working hours.
There's a third world quality about many parts of the city, even close to downtown- information travels by word of mouth and the information is often incorrect. The high water mark of the flooding draws a dirty line along the walls throughout the city. People sitting on the pavement smoking a cigarette or eating a sack lunch, draw no official attention. Pretty much the same thing with people sleeping. Homeless people sleep during the day.
Over my first weekend in New Orleans I attend an event called a "second line" with a Dutch woman who works at the hostel where I am staying. Incredibly, I have no awareness at all of one of the things that makes New Orleans New Orleans. There are 40 "social aid and pleasure "clubs in New Orleans and each of them has an annual parade. The clubs were originally formed as a sort of neighbourhood insurance policy, where the dues were used to cover people for extraordinary expenses, family disasters in general, and funerals in particular. With the availability of individual insurance, the social aid part of the formula has become less prominent, but the clubs maintain their identities, and every Sunday afternoon outside of Mardi Gras season, the club hires a local band, pays for a parade permit and police escort and and the dancers dress up from head to toe in matching custom-made clothes. The parade meanders for 3 or 4 hours through its home neighbourhood, stopping at local bars, and gathering dancing crowds along the way.
After the parade, we stopped by the Backstreet Cultural Museum (http://www.backstreetmuseum.org), founded and run by a man named Sylvester Francis. Mr. Francis has filmed more than 500 jazz funerals and has a collection of Mardi Gras costumes on display. He had just begun a tour when we arrived, and we were happy to join. I learned a number of startling things.
Mardi Gras costumes, which can cost as much as $20,000 each, are never reused. Men will spend most of a year buying beads and jewels as people give them money to support the project, putting them together by hand, bead by bead, feather by feather, in the secrecy of their homes, all for a couple of days of magnificent display.
There is white Mardi Gras, which is the one most of us tourists hear about and there is Black Mardi Gras. White Mardi Gras is Rex and all that. Black Mardi Gras is Indians and Zulus.
Second line parade outfits are also never worn again in parade. They may be worn for other occasions, but usually they are kept, pristine, $1000 alligator shoes and all. Hats straight from the factory. The dancers I had seen in the afternoon's parade had spent something like $20,000 of their own money on their costumes.
During a parade break at a bar in Frenchman, I got into conversation with a young man who was evacuated to Colorado Springs after Katrina, and lived there for 10 months. Like everyone I spoke to about it, he said how kind and helpful everyone had been to him there, but he said he missed the neighbourhood thing in New Orleans, especially second line, and he would not leave again, even though his rent had doubled.
After my first second line, I was hooked, and went to another one the following weekend down near St. Joseph's cemetery. Different neighbourhood, different bands, different costumes, same four policemen on horseback. As a special treat, I got to go to a rehearsal for one of the Mardi Gras groups, the Wild Magnolia Indians. No costumes, just drums and chanting. The story is that the native Americans helped slaves escape, and to commemorate them, the escaped slaves turned themselves into their own Indian tribes. The music is intoxicating- no need, nor any possibility for conversation in the bar. I'm pleasantly relieved of the burden of social interaction- I dance, listen, watch, feel. I'm completely happy.
The next day I paint a portrait of an Indian dancer, an engineer in his working life. He lost a two month old grandson in the flooding after the hurricane. He's making his costume at home. I think of Zorba the Greek, dancing after the death of his son.
Dancing among the Indians is a guy to guy thing, sometimes cooperative, sometimes competitive. I begin to understand a little about the parades and the individual's participation in them. They're an expression of exuberance, of life force, of suitability for reproduction. They're also an expression of devotion and commitment. They only look frivolous because they look so different from the manifestations of those things that I'm used to.
I come from a Boston financial family. If anyone is our mascot, it's Ben Franklin, wearing his shabby overcoat for another year, saying “A penny saved is a penny earned, Early to bed etc.” Coupled with our Puritan disdain for flamboyance and personal display is our worship of financial capital, its accumulation, preservation, augmentation. The idea of spending heavily on clothes to be worn only once is only barely acceptable for a wedding dress, and even these are sometimes handed down through generations.
One of the biggest changes I notice in New Orleans, from my last visit in the summer of 2001, is that the city is full of Mexican construction workers and I hear Spanish spoken often. This isn't unusual in many areas of the country- in Colorado, where I live, many businesses now have signs in Spanish- but it's unfamiliar in Southern Louisiana, and makes people feel that they're being flooded out culturally, as well as physically. It hasn't led to any unrest yet, that I've heard of, but it's easy to imagine. Vietnamese immigrants, of whom there have been quite a few for a long time, are careful, I notice, to speak English with each other when local people are present, or to keep silent.